Menopause and Vitamins
Expert’s Name: Robin Pruitt
There is a lot of conflicting health information available these days. On one hand, we are told that lycopene is the latest antioxidant star and that the best source of lycopene is cooked tomato products such as canned tomatoes and tomato sauce. On the other hand, we read about the dangers of BPA, a component of the plastic commonly used to line the insides of food cans. Current research indicates that BPA can mimic estrogen and interrupt normal thyroid function, and the FDA recently expressed concern about the effects of BPA exposure. Assuming that you don’t have all day to cook your own tomato sauce, what should you do if you’d like to get the benefits of lycopene: Forget about BPA and keep your pantry stocked with canned tomatoes? Or, take lycopene supplements and only eat fresh tomatoes? And why is lycopene getting so much attention, anyway?
Lycopene is a carotenoid—a class of antioxidants that provides the color to red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Carotenoid is an antioxidant, which means that they prevent disease-causing cell damage caused by free radicals in the body. The recent excitement about lycopene stems from its powerful antioxidant ability.
Research studies have shown that lycopene has the most benefit in the parts of the body with the highest lycopene concentration. In women, lycopene is most prominent in the liver, the adrenal glands and breast tissue. The liver is the body’s main filter, sorting out toxins from nutrients and playing a key role in hormonal balance, especially during menopause. The adrenal glands also affect hormonal balance and influence thyroid function. And of course hormone levels have an impact on breast cancer risk. Since these three areas of a woman’s body would benefit the most from the powerful antioxidant activity of lycopene, women in mid-life have plenty of reason to ensure that their diets contain ample lycopene.
As a bonus, research indicates that lycopene may be the most powerful antioxidant to counteract the skin-aging free radicals caused by sun exposure. Further, there is evidence that lycopene aids in the prevention of osteoporosis. And for the man in your life, there is a very clear inverse relationship between the amount of tomato products eaten and the incidence of prostate cancer—in other words; men who eat the most tomato products have dramatically fewer cases of prostate cancer. In fact, numerous studies have shown that the more tomato products people eat, the lower their risk of all types of cancer.
Maximizing the Benefit of Lycopene
Our bodies can’t create lycopene; we need to obtain it from fruits and vegetables. Tomato products are generally the handiest way to ensure an abundant source of lycopene, but there are other sources. Lycopene provides another reason to enjoy watermelon, papaya, pink grapefruit, apricots, red bell peppers, goji berries and guava, but tomatoes dwarf them all as a source of lycopene.
Research has revealed several factors that impact the body’s ability to utilize the lycopene from tomato products. First, lycopene is the pigment that gives red tomatoes their color. Therefore, bright red tomatoes, rather than the lovely and delicious yellow, orange and green varieties of heirloom tomatoes, are the best sources of lycopene. Also, the riper the better, since lycopene levels increase as the tomato ripens.
Studies indicate that the best way to benefit from lycopene is to consume lycopene-containing foods rather than supplements. Processed tomatoes are better sources of lycopene than raw tomatoes because the processing releases the lycopene by breaking down the cell walls of the tomato. Additionally, heat transforms the chemical structure to a more bioavailable form of lycopene. For that reason, canned tomatoes and tomato paste and prepared pasta and pizza sauces are often recommended as ideal sources of lycopene. Sundried tomatoes and dried tomato powder should also be excellent lycopene sources due to their concentrated nature.
Lycopene is a fat-soluble nutrient, so it is best absorbed when eaten along with healthy sources of oils and fats—another reason why pasta and pizza sauces are recommended ways of obtaining lycopene.
Additionally, studies have shown that lycopene is much more easily absorbed when ingested along with beta carotene. Beta carotene, another potent antioxidant, is associated with orange foods, including apricots, cantaloupe, mangos, carrots, pumpkin, squash and sweet potatoes. Certain leafy green vegetables, including collard greens, kale and spinach are also good sources of beta carotene. But the most natural beta carotene-rich partner for tomatoes is basil. I wonder—could it be that the health benefits of the so-called Mediterranean Diet stem from the combination of tomatoes, olive oil and basil found in so many dishes from that region?
A Balanced Approach
By now it should be clear that there are tremendous health benefits to including frequent servings of processed tomato products in your diet. It also appears that the benefits of eating cooked tomatoes outweigh the risk of exposure to small amounts of BPA from the plastic lining of tomato cans. Here are some ways to obtain the benefits of tomato-based sources of lycopene while minimizing your exposure to BPA:
- Use jarred, rather than canned, tomatoes and sauces.
- Increase the lycopene content of soups, sauces and vegetable dishes by adding dried tomato powder and sundried tomatoes.
- In the summertime when tomatoes are plentiful, make a large batch of homemade tomato sauce and freeze it in meal-sized portions.
- Eat apricots, which are good sources of both lycopene and beta carotene. For added benefit, add them to a salad with an oil-based dressing.
- Limit your exposure to other BPA sources by minimizing the use of all canned foods and avoiding the use of polycarbonate plastic containers, especially with hot foods.
- Make sure you have ample supplies of antioxidants in your diet so your body can do a better job of counteracting the negative effects of occasional dietary exposure to BPA and other unhealthful substances.